Role of Management in Improving Workplace Safety and Health

Perhaps more than any other HR activity, health and safety offer HR manager an opportunity to be more proactive than reactive.

Read: The Concept of Occupational Safety and Health

There are a number of strategies that can be used by organizations to ensure a healthy and safe workplace and ensure compliance with legal requirements. Some are:

DesignSafe and healthy systems of work
ExhibitStrong management commitment
InspectWorkplace for health and safety problems
EstablishProcedures and controls for dealing with health and safety issues
DevelopTraining programs
Set upHealth and safety committees
MonitorSafety policies
Draw upAction plan and checklist

1. Design safer systems of work:

The most direct approach to ensuring a safe and healthy workplace is to design systems of work that are safe and without risk to health. This can often only be done satisfactorily at the design, planning or purchasing stage. It may be far more difficult to modify existing machinery or systems of work to eliminate or reduce hazards, than at the investment stage. Thus, management must take cognizance of long-term organizational changes to control hazards. Simply trying to persuade employees, for instance by poster campaigns, to adapt their behavior to unsafe systems of work is unacceptable. ‘Most accidents involve an element of failure in control — in other words failure in management skill. A guiding principle when drawing up arrangements for securing health and safety should be so far as possible work would be adapted to people and not vice versa’. As managers identify processes, machines and substances that are hazardous to the health and well-being of employees, they must modify the process to eliminate or reduce the hazard and risk ‘at source’. The provision of protective equipment is the typical means used by organizations to reduce physical hazards, and it is also an employer responsibility.

2. Exhibit commitment:

No matter how much activity on health and safety is initiated by HR professionals, health and safety should be an integral part of every manager’s responsibility, from the chief executive officer down to the lowest level supervisor. Anything less than total support from top management raises questions about sincerity of the organization’s commitment in the eyes of employees, government agencies and the public at large. To exhibit commitment, managers’ salaries and promotion might be tied to a satisfactory safety record and compliance. Larger organizations have also appointed specialists in the area, including health and safety officers, safety engineer and medical technicians. If the safety officer is to be effective she or he must be given adequate authority in the management hierarchy to implement changes.

3. Inspect the workplace:

Another proactive approach to the management of health and safety is regular formal inspections of the workplace, regular monitoring of the work environment and regular physical examination of employees. For example, construction sites and manufacturing plants require regular inspections to check the application of safety standards and relevant laws. Organizations may monitor a wide range of matters relating to employees’ health, from routine eye tests and chest X-rays to screening for breast and cervical cancer and incidents of infertility and abnormal childbirths. A ‘health’ survey of employees can also help identify hazardous and unhealthy processes.

We can identify three main types of formal inspection, accident, special and general. Accident inspections will follow an accident or dangerous incident in the workplace. Special inspections might concentrate on a particular work station, system of work or hazard. The safety committee might decide that it is necessary to examine the training of fork-lift truck operators or dust problems; this would be the first step in a plan of action. A comprehensive survey of the entire workplace is the purpose of general inspection.

4. Establish procedures and controls:

A healthy and safety policy is likely to fail unless there are effective procedures and controls established. The procedures for handling and safety problems need to meet some basic requirements:

  1. Allow employees and union representatives to talk directly to the managers who can make decisions.
  2. Operate without undue delay.
  3. Be able to handle emergency problems and
  4. Permit discussion about long-term decisions affecting health and safety.

Clearly, these recommendations have important implications for HRM policy and action. Problems might occur if line managers are expected by senior management to be responsible for safe working practices, but at the same time are denied the authority to make decisions and implement changes. In principle, organizational procedures should ensure that the responsibility of each level of management to make decisions. The appointment of a safety officer may be a necessary prerequisite to establishing effective procedures and controls, but it is not sufficient. The position must be placed into the management hierarchy with clear lines of reporting and accountability, which will enable procedures for raising problems to operate without undue delay and avoid other managers absolving themselves from responsibilities.

5. Develop training programs:

One way to obtain compliance with health and safety regulations is through enhancing employees’ knowledge, understanding and commitment, which can be achieved through healthy and safety programs. The purpose of safety training is generally the same as that of any other training program: to improve job knowledge and skills and to ensure optimum employee performance at the specified level. In health and safety training, specified performance standards include attention to safety rules and regulations regarding safe work behavior. Like any other training, health and safety training should be developed systematically. First, problems or training needs are identified by inspection, by accident reports, and through discussion at the health and safety committee. Next, planning, execution and evaluation of the training take place. Top management support is a key ingredient in the availability and success of health and safety training.

6. Set up health and safety committees:

When health committees are not initiated by the union, organization often have safety committees which have employee members and are chaired by the safety or HRM specialist. Making the committee effective is mainly in the realm of senior management. A safety committee may develop into a ‘talking shop’ with no effective decision-making authority. To avoid this, a senior member of management team, with executive authority, should be a member of the committee.

The functions of the committees, their terms of reference, depends on individual company policy, relevant safety legislation and the employee-union relations situation. Employers or their representatives are primarily responsible for compliance with health and safety laws. The existence of this committee does not diminish the employer’s duty to ensure a healthy and safe workplace. The work of the safety committee should supplement management’s arrangements for regular and effective monitoring for health and safety precautions; it cannot be a substitute for management action. All forms of safety matters reduce the incidence of accidents.

7. Monitor policy:

Safety specialists argue that the safety policy should reflect the employer’s commitment to develop safe systems of work, and to pursue a healthy work environment. Apart from giving details of the specialist safety services provided by the organization, the safety policy also outlines the safety responsibilities of all levels of management within the hierarchy. This part of the safety policy is particularly important for identifying which member of the management hierarchy should be involved when a health and safety problem arises in the workplace. A proactive approach would involve HRM professionals regularly checking to ensure that safety policy; management procedures and arrangements work, and are changed to suit new developments or work structures in the workplace.

8. Draw up action plan:

Thorough preparation, including designing a comprehensive set of checklists covering all aspects of the workplace, is essential if managers are to discover physical hazards. HRM professionals can be more proactive in the area of health and safety be developing an action plan and checklist.

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